Friday, 4 December 2015

The tradition, art and magic of a malt whisky

Our guide for the distillery tour was Andrew, who was very knowledgeable and informative - we've been on tours of other distilleries but this was by far the best. What's more we were the only visitors and it felt very much like a personal VIP visit!

As this blog features the occasional enjoyment of a dram, I thought it might be fun to feature some ofthe tradition, art and magic of malt whisky.......

Glen Grant was founded in 1840 when two brothers, James and John Grant, applied for a distilling licence.  They were no newcomers to distilling whisky by all accounts, having been involved in the production and distribution of illicit spirit for some years.  When the tax on whisky was reduced they like others sought licences and turned to legitimate distilling, using the same distribution networks which had served them so well.  Among other achievements, the Grants were involved in bringing steam railways to Speyside which further improved the infrastructure of the area.

By 1872 the founding brothers had died and the distillery was owned by a nephew, James "The Major" Grant.  A real innovator, he introduced new ideas to the distillery (it was the first to have electric light) and introduced the tall slender stills and purifiers which gave Glen Grant whisky the fresh, light character which still defines the house style.

In  1931 "The Major" was succeeded by his grandson Douglas Mackessack who further developed the business.  Notably, he supplied an Italian whisky buyer with 50 cases of Glen Grant to sell in Italy when no other distiller would; the result was that Glen Grant became, and remains, by far the best selling malt whisky in Italy.

During the period from 1972 to 2006 Glen Grant was owned by a variety of big players from the world of whisky distilling and then in turn by multinational drinks companies, reflecting the surge in popularity of Scotch malt whisky.  In 2006 the Italian connection reached a nice conclusion when Glen Grant was acquired by the Campari group.  It remains their only brand of whisky and as such has benefited from a benign ownership with respect for tradition but an eye for the future.

Having immersed ourselves in the history of the brand we moved into the distillery proper to immerse ourselves in the magical sights, sounds and aromas of whisky production.....

The primary ingredients are malted barley and pure water from the stream we'd walked along.  All the barley used for Glen Grant is all sourced from the northeast of Scotland and is first "malted" - partially germinated - in order to release fermentable sugars.  This is done by soaking the barley in water for a few days until it begins to sprout then the sprouting is arrested by drying the grains using heat.

The malted barley is then milled to small size grains called "grist" which are mixed with warm water in a large "mash tun".  The liquid produced is called "wort", the residual grains are either fed to cattle or, in a modern twist, turned over to biomass power generation.

The wort is fed into huge fermentation vessels called "washbacks" and has yeast added to it - starting the fermentation process and the conversion of sugar to alcohol, which takes about 2-4 days.

The washbacks used by Glen Grant are very traditional and are made of Oregon Pine, which they feel is a better material than the stainless steel used at some distilleries.  They are really huge, this image is showing just the very tops; each holds around 90,000 litres of fluid and is two storeys high.

The now alcoholic liquid is called "beer" and is typically around 7% alcohol - the liquid is constantly agitated by revolving blades and the fermentation process is quite energetic, producing a bubbling, heaving froth at the top of the washbacks.  If this part of the process is where the magic of whisky distilling takes places, then the next stage could almost be considered as alchemy .....

In the Still House are four pairs of copper stills consisting of four "wash stills" and four "spirit stills", giving four distillation sets.  The first stage of distillation takes place in the larger wash stills where the fully fermented wash is carefully boiled by passing steam through stainless steel pans within the still.  Alcohol vapours rise to the top of the still and are cooled before the process is repeated in the smaller spirit still (this is the double distillation process).  The alcohol is cooled in condensers on the outside of the Still House wall, cooled by water from the Spey which is diverted then returned to the river.  The residue from this part of the process is collected and used in the production of farm feed.

What sets Glen Grant apart is the addition of a Spirit Purifier between the wash and spirit stills. These were introduced by James "The Major" Grant and allow only the purest vapour to pass from the stills to the condensers, ensuring a light but complex spirit.

The elegant stills at Glen Grant are particularly tall and slender, a shape which gives finer, lighter spirits whereas shorter, fatter stills will produce a fuller and richer spirit. Each is polished and beautifully lacquered as is all the pipework.  The liquid produced from the wash still is known as "low wines", when passed through the purifier and spirit still the resulting condensed spirit is sent across the Still House to spirit "safes" where it arrives in three distinct phases.

Alcohols from the beginning of each distillation are harsh and high in alcoholic percentage, these are technically called "foreshots" but are normally referred to as the "head".  Alcohols from the end of each distillation are weak in alcoholic percentage but pungent, these are technically called "feints" but usually referred to as the "tail".

It is only the alcohol from the middle part of the distillation - known as the "heart" and of about 65-70% alcohol which is skillfully drawn off by the Stillman and collected through the spirit safes.  The head and tail are then combined and passed back to be used with the next distillation run.

So far there's been tradition, magic and a dash of alchemy in the production of the spirit, and what follows takes us into the realms of the mystical........

The spirit is poured into oak casks for storage and maturation. It must be stored in oak, in Scotland for a minimum of three years in order to be legally termed Scotch Whisky.  To be termed a "malt" whisky it must be made only from malted barley and to be termed "single" it must be produced from a single distillery.

The barrels used are of varying sizes and types - Glen Grant use mostly American Oak casks previously used for a fill of Bourbon, and some Spanish oak casks are also used, these having previously held sherry or port and which can add a nuance and character to particular "expressions" from a distillery.  Bourbon aficionados can rest easy that their drink has done its most important job of preparing the casks for a much nobler purpose!

The wood on the inside of the casks is surface charred to enable the whisky to access the character of the oak; it's said that although the water, barley and distillation process all help to determine the nature of the finished whisky, as much as half of the character is determined during the maturation period.  Each cask to be used is individually hand-picked by the Distillery Manager - it's that important.

Whilst maturing the casks allow up to 2% of the whisky to evaporate out through the wood each year, the loss is known as "the Angel's share".  There must be some very well-fuelled Angels around the Speyside area!  The spirit lost through the wood is replaced by air, meaning that the location, temperature and humidity of the warehouse also plays a part in the character of the spirit.  This loss also partially explains why more mature whiskies at 18, 20 or more years old are more expensive to buy; aside from the extra time invested in their production there's simply less whisky in the cask to bottle.  There's also more risk to a distillery with older casks in that there's more which can go wrong over the longer maturation.

The whisky emerges from the wood at "cask strength" alcoholic content which is typically 55-60%.  Some bottlings are made at cask strength but the vast majority of production has water added to take the strength down to the standard 40% alcohol content.

Glen Grant, like most distilleries uses casks three times, so by the time they're sold on they are probably over 60 years old.  We have a particular interest in the casks once they've reached the end of their whisky-making lives....... we buy some staves and barrel ends to make handcrafted items such as candle holders.....

...and practical accessories for the enjoyment of the whisky they once held......... :o)

Ownership by Gruppo Campari has brought investment to Glen Grant in the form of an ultra-modern bottling plant.  The distillery is one of the few to bottle their own whisky on site, and this is the largest bottling plant on Speyside.

Meanwhile, the casks work their magic on the whisky within and they'll lie quietly fuelling the Angels whilst developing fine single malt whisky........

...and we'll all have to exercise patience until it comes out of here and the Excisemen have imposed their tax!

We went from the production area back to the Visitor Centre where we were offered two generous tastings - included along with the tour and entrance to the garden in the £5 per person charge.  Unfortunately I had to drive home, so my tasting was the merest touch on the tongue....

The first was The Major's Reserve, a bottling with no age statement but we were told that it's around 8 years old.  Light, fragrantly fruity and ever so slightly dry - it's a very pleasant dram and a perfect expression of the Glen Grant tradition of light but firm whiskies.

The second tasting was of the 10 year old Glen Grant - and it was a revelation.  Flavours and nose of orchard fruits followed by a smooth intensity with no hint of sharpness and a light body, this is an immensely good whisky and is described by one of the most influential whisky guides as "undoubtedly the best 10 year old official distillery bottling I have tasted"

There are other expressions on sale in the distillery shop at older ages and some really exclusive offerings in limited editions.  Our £5 charge also gave us a £2 discount on a prizes for guessing which one we went for!

Glen Grant is a wonderful place to visit - the whole ethos of the place shines through in the pride that's taken, the combination of tradition and innovation and friendliness of the staff we met.  If you take only one distillery tour, make it this one.

So there you have it, tradition, art, magic and a touch of the mystical....Sláinte Mhath!


  1. Slàinte mhòr Ian! I do hope that a little of that bottle might be held back for sampling on some suitable remote beach by the wider appreciation society :o)

  2. Slàinte mhòr indeed Douglas!

    We've only sampled the bottle as yet...and if by some ill-chance it happens to suffer from evaporation before our next trip, I know where there's a considerable supply to satisfy the requirements of the wider appreciation society!


  3. An excellent read, Ian! We first heard about the "angel's share" when we toured the Glenturret Distillery, in Crief. And we enjoy, to this day, one of your barrel stave candle holders. I have a feeling the 10 year old Glen Grant will find its way to a "suitable remote beach" one day. With a bit of luck and some good planning, maybe we'll be there. ;) Warm and spirited wishes.

    1. The Glen Grant is definitely destined for enjoying on a beach Duncan - hopefully you'll both be able to take your share too!

      Warm wishes

  4. Now I'm thirsty, but sadly, no Glen Grant in the house. That said I have no shortage of choices as a substitute.

    1. Well worth searching out as a 10 year old Dan - exceptionally good stuff!


  5. Comprehensive account of the process.On my last trip round the north east we visited several towns on the whisky trail that were new to us and were pleasantly surprised by the obvious age, prosperity, history and architecture passing through them. An area I don't visit enough. Needs a few high mountains above each distillery so I've got an excuse to persuade the baggers that surround me to go there again.

  6. Thanks Bob...there's obviously Royal Lochnagar at the foot of the hill, and plenty of Corbetts to try before or after a Speyside about linking Dufftown with Aberlour via Ben Rinnes? - a good way to earn a dram!